Huff Post lists Arcosanti as one of its “Ten Best Utopias“. Arcosanti has been featured in various kinds of articles about (the ten best) utopias, communes or alternative projects numerous times. Writers seem to see something cool and then want to replicate it over and over in the media to the point where it begins to seem a bit repetitive and even pathetic.
Arcosanti’s founder Paolo Soleri never considered the project a utopia. He intended it as a experiment to test out his architectural and philosophical theory of a compact and sustainable city as an alternative to what he saw as the twin demons of modern American life: suburban sprawl and the needless overconsumption of resources.
While some of his notions might have been interpreted as utopian, he rejected the use of term in relation to his work. Key to this was the fact that he saw utopian thinking as a intellectual and academic pursuit out of touch with real work towards building a better and more effective society. In the 70s, Soleri was able to create a sense of excitement among the youth who traveled to Arcosanti seeking to build the city of the future. At the time people really believed they were doing it. While that momentum has long left the project, Soleri never completely abandoned the belief that he was building a real and compelling alternative to sprawl and overconsumption. Indeed if you put Arcosanti and utopia in the same sentence, when asking him a question – a polemic against Utopia and why Arcosanti is not such a odious thing – could be expected.
So I find it interesting and a bit ironic that now after his death I am seeing so many of these kinds of articles. In fact I never knew what Arcosanti really was while I was there. Oftentimes it is much easier to say what we’re not than to figure out what we really are. The official line commonly told to people in an attempt to clear the air, was that Arcosanti was not an intentional community, not a commune, not an ecovillage, definitely not a utopia…
In all fairness there was an attempt to say what Arcosanti was: a construction site for the promotion of Paolo Soleri’s vision of Arcology – an urban laboratory (that really was not all that urban except for the fact that its 60 or so residents lived relatively close together in multifamily housing and shared apartments) is what he called it.
The whole fear of being associated with those labels may have been more about mainstream misconceptions of those terms than the terms themselves, but Soleri himself seemed to want to keep the project more focused on himself and his work rather than making it more of a community or collaborative effort. This may explain to a large degree that despite his desire to make Arcosanti into a 5000 person EcoCity prototype for his compact and integrated future city thinking (called Arcology), it never got beyond the 70-80 people stage. Even though he had a vision of transforming the world with his particular “branded” idea of technology and architecture (Arcology) that was similar to other more famous icons of our age like Elon Musk, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney or Steve Jobs, he was unable or unwilling to surround himself with the brain trust of people and to make the practical financial decisions needed to make his grand vision of Arcosanti real.